Have you ever thought what it means to be a good student? What are the factors to become a better student? Probably your first thoughts are motivation, age, time available, homework completion etc. What about learner’s independence, their ability to learn by themselves?
What is learner autonomy?
The idea of learner autonomy is not new, but it has been widely referred to in the field of ELT only over the last decade. The notion of learner autonomy was first developed out of practice by teacher-researchers at the Centre de Recherches et d'Applications Pédagogiques en Langues (CRAPEL), University of Nancy, France, in the early 1970s. In the interests of widening access to education and promoting lifelong learning, CRAPEL began to offer adults the opportunity to learn a foreign language in a resources centre, free from teacher direction. CRAPEL put in place various kinds of support measures, including learner counselling and ‘training’ to assist in the ‘autonomization’ process—the development of learners’ abilities to work more effectively in a self-directed fashion. It soon became clear that participants have the full capacity to take charge of decision-making in all the areas normally determined by an institution, teacher, or textbook. This views learner autonomy as a capacity and willingness to act independently, “the ability to take charge of their learning” (Holec, 1981), for example learning by themselves, choosing and studying material satisfying their needs, understanding whether they have some problems with English or how well they are prepared for the test, reading books not assigned by a teacher and so on. It doesn’t mean that they work completely independently, without a teacher or completely alone. Moreover, it doesn’t mean that all learners have it, but they all have a capacity to become autonomous. In order to foster learner autonomy, it is necessary to develop a sense of responsibility and encourage learners themselves to make decisions about their learning. What is more, it’s possible to do at any age.
How to develop learner autonomy:
1) Teach the students how to learn
Show the students how to learn, teach different study skills and strategies, even simple ones like writing coloured words on papers, highlighting key words, creating mind maps, techniques to remember the words better. Show them the ways they can use course book at home (listening to the tracks and working with transcripts, retelling the stories etc.) Train learners to identify their own preferred learning styles and strategies. While some students like sitting passively, reading or translating, others prefer creating tables and diagrams.
2) Highlight the importance of self-evaluation
What is significant in learning is setting an objective. Ask the students set the objectives and then have them evaluate their progress. Moreover, to increase students’ self-awareness you might ask your students to write down what they have learnt at the lesson, what they liked / dislike about the lesson, what information was new / easy / difficult, what they have not understood very well.
Self-evaluation can be done at any age.
3) Make the students research and find the answers themselves
At the lesson students might often ask “What does X mean?”. Students are looking for a quick answer because the problem is not really important to them, it is just a hindrance to their completion of the task. Sometimes hurdles are things the student have never learned before and do not know yet, and sometimes they are things that students have learned before but have forgotten. Giving a quick answer to the student’s question, such as a definition—or worse, a translation—for the word, does not help them over the hurdle. If you remove the hurdle every time the runner approaches one, then he or she will never learn how to get over the hurdles they encounter in the future without you. We should make our students work for the answers to even the small questions, have them make the effort. It is not just about them finding the answer to the question they’re asking now; it is about learning how to find answers to questions they might have in the future. Ask them to guess the meaning from the context, search online to investigate what the correct answers are. The same approach is suitable for quizzes, just don’t give the answers but ask to search for the information in English.
4) Provide guidance to study and use English outside the classroom
Show students the ways to improve their English outside the classroom. Give them a list of tasks which might motivate them and ask to try something new every week (you can even have a challenge marathon).
The example of the list:
Read a book in English
Watch a movie in English
Listen to songs / an audiobook
Create a facebook account
Create a couchsurfing / penpal account
Download an English-learning app
Create a wordlist on Quizlet
Teach English to someone (a family member or a friend)
Switch the mobile in English for a week
Make a post in Instagram in English
Find and watch an English-speaking Youtube vlogger
Talk to a stranger in the street in English
Keep a diary (for example a food diary)
As a teacher you can personalize by assigning different exercises to different learners. Provide the links to the resources, for example if the students’ weakness is listening, give them a list of website with exercises, which they can do and check on their own.
5) Use task based learning approach
Task based language teaching has become increasingly popular in the field of language teaching and learning. As the students choose the materials themselves it promotes learner autonomy. Learn more about TBL in our article.
Share in comments your ideas how to develop learner autonomy!